Cam Newton was leading his team downfield. The packed stadium was in fits of excitement. Grown men were screaming. Toddlers wearing No. 1 jerseys were mesmerized. How could he lose?
Of course, this "Cam Newton" wasn’t actually Cam Newton. It was 4-foot-9 Lathan Makiao, who’s left-handed, thin as a toothpick and Hawaiian, but man did he have that swag and that smile. He owned the place. When he scored a touchdown, God save us all if he didn’t try to give the ball away.
On the other side of the football was "Peyton Manning." He was about 5-foot-3 and not quite Peyton-level poised, but Tyler Gale of the Miami-based team threw the occasional wobbly duck like Peyton and had a similar fire in his eyes. During the game, his coach Devin McCourty — the actual Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots — threw his arm around young Peyton. He knew potential when he saw it.
Reporting all the action from the sidelines was Kel of "Kenan and Kel" fame. Scott Hanson and Maurice Jones-Drew of the NFL Network called the game. At halftime four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles threw out T-shirts and signed autographs with oversized turtle hands.
This was the NFL Flag Championships. Teams that won regionals all over the county, both girls and boys ages 9-14, came to San Francisco’s Moscone Center where the weeklong NFL Experience is taking place in the run-up to Super Bowl 50 and played on a carefully manicured faux-grass 50-yard field in front of thousands. The game was broadcasted by Nickelodeon and produced by NFL Films.
For an outsider, it was surreal — a perfect window into understanding both the next generation and football’s most talked-about star.
Despite being holed up 45 minutes away in San Jose, the real Cam Newton’s presence is everywhere during the flag football championship. For all the talk of the demise of youth football, at least here in the flag form it’s flourishing. USA Football says there are 300,000 kids playing flag football each year in leagues around the country (20 percent are girls) despite high school football participation being down.
After the 11-12-year-old girls final, one of the moms from the championship team from Austin, Texas, is shaking she’s so excited.
"They were great," she yelped. "It would be so good if my daughter could play tackle down the road."
"But what about concussions, are you worried?" I ask her.
Football, of course, has always been popular, and there’s the marketing behemoth of the NFL that has helped the game reach every inch of earth — but then there’s the star power. The kids can connect to the players in ways they never could before, and now they have a bonafide hero. It’s probably hard to fully grasp the relationship between young kids and Cam Newton if you’re older than 16 years old.
At halftime of the 11-12 girls final, the players form Austin circle around their celebrity coach, DeAngelo Williams of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Here’s our handshake," the girls show him. He plays along. "Then at the end like Cam," one says, "we dab." They shriek in excitement.
But Williams doesn’t do it. "I don’t dance," he says. He was amused but serious about the dancing thing. But he doesn’t have to do it — they do it for him.
It’s within this banal exchange with one of Newton’s peers that you see the generational chasm, even among other players. Parents can write letters about Newton’s role in the disintegration of the values of sport, but when the kids are between the sidelines and away from the overbearing, screaming parents (of which there were many at the national championships) they can express themselves. It’s OK to play, then dab, then Snapchat it and all the while smile, Cam is saying. They understand this. And if you tick some people off on the way, so be it.
Back on the field, poor little Peyton was having a rough game in the 11-12-year-old boys final. Two more interceptions, and Shea Molina from the Hawaii-based team, who was about a foot taller than anyone else and looking like a pre-teen Tony Gonzalez, was taking over. Hawaii won the championship in their age group then posed for a picture with their hands in the Shaka pose, thumb and finger out — then one of the team’s receivers broke off and did the dab, his hand still in the Shaka.
The Hawaiian dab. He couldn’t help it.
Flinder Boyd is a former European professional basketball player turned writer. On Twitter he can be found @FlinderBoyd. He’s in the Bay Area all week for a series of articles on the events around Super Bowl 50.